Once when I was a little boy—maybe I was eight years old, I might have been slightly younger—I made the mistake of telling my barber that I wanted to be a writer. I wonder what possessed me? Youthful inexperience I suppose. We were in his shop, which I now remember as being completely white except for posters of monster trucks and bikini clad hair models with machine guns. I’m not entirely sure if the posters are real or if my mind added them to the memory as years have passed.
I don’t remember most of what he said to me. I remember he flapped his arms around a lot and finally at the end of his long monologue, he asked me a fairly simple question: “Do you think you’re gonna be at a job and your boss is gonna say, ‘I need a poem on line three.’?” At the time I imagined the scenario my barber had in mind took place in a call center, later I’d guess a Venture (does anybody even remember those?).
There’s a scene I love in a film called Adult World in which Evan Peters’s character Alex asks the main character Amy—played here by Emma Roberts—if she has ever written anything she wouldn’t show anyone else. Something just for her. She thinks about it for a moment and then says quietly, “no.”
I finished reading a memoir recently by a writer of the same generation as my former barber who lamented the inability of writers—well mostly himself—to “pay the bills.” And I couldn’t shake the voice of my old barber in my head as I moved from page to page.
One of my favorite books as a small child was Alexander and the Magic Mouse by Martha Sanders. This was in the days, for those of you who might remember, of Alexander and the Terrible, Horrible, No Good, Very Bad Day. If you think I didn’t listen to kids shout the title, usually incompletely or in the wrong order, at me as I disembarked the bus or stood against the wall at recess, you’re probably misremembering youth. Even my teachers liked to tease about this book. I hated it. The boy in the book was not only an unwanted outsider, but from my childhood point of view, also kind of a turd.
The Alexander of Alexander and the Magic Mouse on the other hand, was an alligator. He lived atop a hill with an old woman and his animal friends. While not exactly an “insider,” he ultimately wins acceptance in the end because the thing that makes him an outsider—being an alligator—is also the thing that allows him to save people from an impending flood. I treated that book as precious cargo, wrapping it in a towel. I kept it under my dresser, and when I read it by flashlight, I turned the pages with the tips of my first finger and thumb.